On my first evening my new colleagues gave me my first taste of sushi. As I tried to swallow what felt like an enormous slice of raw squid the restaurant owner declared he would be my protector for as long as I lived in Japan. Later that night we visited a drag show. Within twenty-four hours I’d experienced the dizzying contrasts of a culture I found endlessly fascinating.
Two weeks passed before I figured out where the supermarkets were: in the basements of department stores. I’d been living off McDonald’s takeaways and croquet potato sandwiches from the bakery next to the school. I was too embarrassed to ask anyone how they fed themselves.
Despite the kindness of people I met, I always felt an oddity. I made a baby cry just by my foreignness, old ladies liked to touch my blonde hair, I once had an excruciating conversation with an exasperated plumber in my terrible Japanese about a blocked toilet and I became hooked on a soap opera despite not being able to follow a word.
We were paid in cash and I’d often run out of money a week before pay day and live off my home-made version of chapatis (flour, water, salt), which were pretty much fried glue. But I loved it all: the beautiful hills surrounding Nagasaki, the bustling port, the forgotten samurai grave I stumbled upon in one of the many cemeteries.
My debut novel is my thank you to the city and the people I met there. During my time in Nagasaki I attended the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb in the Peace Park. I watched former Korean prisoners of war who had been there on the day of the bombing stand solemnly alongside fellow survivors, politicians and 30,000 others who had gathered to stand united in one message: never again.
I began to read testimonies from the survivors, perhaps one of the most famous being The Bells of Nagasaki by Takashi Nagai, who dedicated his life before he died of leukaemia to spreading a message of peace and forgiveness. He named the wooden hut he lived in, Love Thy Neighbour as Thyself.
The issue of nuclear weapons is also one close to home. I wrote some of the book on Loch Long, in Argyll, across the waters from the UK’s storage facility for our nuclear warheads. Sometimes I would watch a Trident submarine on patrol. When the book was published I took a road trip to the peace camp near the naval base where those subs are maintained. If I couldn’t be in Japan, I felt I needed to mark the day.
When I began to work on what would become A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, initially I shied away from writing about atomic war. The subject was too real, too horrifying, too big – 74,000 people were killed by the bomb, named Fat Man after Winston Churchill. And 75,000 more were injured, some so severely it is difficult to imagine how they lived given the fact most medical supplies were destroyed in the flames.
Despite my reluctance, as I wrote, the story kept dragging me back to August 9, 1945 and I began to think about two dreadful questions: how do you live with loss caused by such a catastrophic event, and what happens if you feel responsible for putting someone you love in the path of that bomb?
I needed to pull something positive from the rubble of the city. I wanted in my own way to say thank you to the survivors – the hibakusha – who bravely speak up about their experiences, their injuries, their message of peace. What extraordinary people. What courage. What purpose. What a burden.
And as I wrote I thought a lot about regret and forgiveness. I wanted to explore whether our regrets diminish or grow as we get older. Do we, can we learn to forgive not only those who have caused us terrible suffering but also ourselves for the mistakes we make?
I also wanted to write a kind story and give my main character, Ama, release from all the pain she had carried with her for so many years. In the end isn’t that what we desire for all those we love? If I couldn’t write a happy ending, I needed at least to find a peaceful one.
Ama is partly inspired by an elderly Iranian woman I know, Tara, who fled her country more than thirty years ago when her Baha’i faith was persecuted by the Khomeini regime. Her daughter, a university graduate, stayed behind and was killed. Tara has never seen her grave.
She would greet me in our local sauna twice a week with a big smile and offer me her homemade avocado and honey face mask. Her English wasn’t great but she could not hide her grief for her daughter or her love for her homeland.
Tara spoke longingly in broken English of the orange and lemon groves of Shiraz, the businesses she had run, her pride in her daughter murdered when she was only twenty-five-years-old. She will die in Britain an immigrant. Iran and her daughter live on in her head. I’m proud my country offered her shelter.
I’ve never been back to Nagasaki. I’m almost scared to return. I owe the city so much: my profession and my first book. I wrote an article for a newspaper back in Britain inspired by what I had witnessed in the Peace Park on August 9, 1995, and the giddy high of seeing the story in print led me later to become a journalist.
That day also pointed me to the child character of Hideo. I watched a little boy eating his ice cream by a fountain built to commemorate those dying people who had cried out for water. He was surrounded by pictures of young victims. The children’s accounts of the bomb are the ones that haunt me most.
Nagasaki is often described as the forgotten bomb. What folly not to remember. We must look at the photographs, read the testimonies and listen to the few remaining survivors. We must remind ourselves that bombs still drop from the skies on to children.
The world remains in need of a peaceful ending.